“Epic,” a fairy tale about a tiny universe of creatures who protect the forest, has many virtues.
The animation is lush and imaginative. The 3-D effects are stunning, among the best we’ve seen. The coming-of-age ideas are framed in eco-friendly ways. And the voice talent — an eclectic mix that includes Amanda Seyfried, Jason Sudeikis, Colin Farrell, Christoph Waltz, Josh Hutcherson, Chris O’Dowd, Aziz Ansari, Pitbull and Beyoncé — is excellent.
The story is a classic one of good versus evil. The problem is in the telling.
When the movie should touch the heart, it just misses. When moments should produce gales of laughter, it struggles for a smile. When panic and fear should set the heart racing, it doesn’t. And when, in the midst of all the talking and fighting to save the forest, a caterpillar in a satin jacket breaks out in a bluesy song, you may wonder if Steven Tyler, yes that Steven Tyler, has jumped and jived into the wrong movie.
The title itself only underscores the dissonance. “Epic” suggests bravado and swag when something along the lines of “A Nice Little Adventure for Wee Ones” would probably have been more on the mark.
The movie represents the same mixed bag for director Chris Wedge. He’s already well-established, with “Robots” and “Ice Age” on his vitae and an Oscar for one of his animated shorts. But all the basking in glory Wedge should be doing over “Epic’s” luminous visuals is clouded by the movie’s inability to make us care.
Inspired by William Joyce’s children’s book “The Leaf Men and the Brave Good Bugs,” “Epic” joins “Rise of the Guardians” and “Meet the Robinsons” in failing to quite capture the magic of the author’s books, though a team of writers that included James V. Hart, Dan Shere, Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember joined Joyce in trying.
The movie is set in a single forest, but there are two distinct species under the microscope. The human side of the equation is reduced to the eccentric Professor Bomba (Sudeikis) and his estranged 17-year-old daughter M.K. (Seyfried), who’s come to live with him after her mother dies.
The good professor is convinced the forest is filled with a complex community of tiny creatures with their own family arguments, political intrigues and global issues. Those crazy ideas ended his marriage and now threaten his relationship with M.K.
He’s right, of course. And it is that small world that is the film’s real focus after all.
As “Epic” opens, it is a critical moment in the life of the forest. The beloved, beautiful and benevolent Queen Tara (Beyoncé, caressing her dialogue like a lullaby) must end her 100-year run and choose a worthy successor. It involves picking a particular pod from a lily-covered pond and making sure that pod blooms at the stroke of midnight under a full moon. Only that will ensure the future of Moonhaven.
Moonhaven is an Eden-like wonderland, and the animation soars in its depiction. It is also where we meet most of the characters. The guardians of the pod are a couple of slugs. No, really, Mub (Ansari) and Grub (O’Dowd) are comic relief covered in slime. The Leafmen are samurai-like warriors; hummingbirds are their steeds.
Ronin (Farrell) is the man in charge and, in addition to battling the bad guy Boggans led by Mandrake (Waltz), he’s got a rebellious teenager in Nod (Hutcherson) to deal with. Even M.K. gets pulled into the fray after an encounter with the queen shrinks her down to leaf size.
The spine of the story is who will save the forest — humans or Leafmen — from Mandrake, whose deadly touch instantly turns things to rot. He believes that to win the war, he needs to get his hands on that pod, and that sets up the battle to come.
But the emotional connection that should have the crowd cheering wildly for the heroes and booing the villains never clicks in.
Even though the very future of Earth and its inhabitants — large and small — hang in the balance, you wish it would feel more epic.
MPAA rating: PG for mild action, some scary images and brief rude language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: In general release